Texas advocates for the open carrying of firearms are accusing Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and President Obama of political opportunism, criticizing the pair for suggesting that the number of civilians walking around with guns downtown as Micah Xavier Johnson rained gunfire on Dallas police officers might have added to the confusion.
About 90 minutes after Johnson began the gun battle that left five Dallas officers and Johnson dead, the Dallas Police Department and Dallas media, the Observer included, circulated a photo of a man later identified as Mark Hughes. Hughes, seen in the photo smiling, in camouflage and with a rifle slung over his shoulder, was described by police as a person of interest. Anyone with information on Hughes' whereabouts was encouraged to call DPD.
Hughes quickly turned himself in to police. As that was happening, Twitter sprung to Hughes' defense. Hughes had marched in the demonstration with a gun, but his fellow marchers had seen him turn his rifle over to Dallas police when Johnson began shooting as to avoid any confusion. DPD released Hughes but left his photo up on the department's Twitter account for 17 hours before taking it down.
Several people were openly carrying guns at the rally. Hughes has received the most attention, but President Obama, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Department Major Max Geron, whose first-person narrative of Thursday night and Friday morning was published by the Observer Saturday night, have all pointed to the multiple people who protested while carrying long guns as causing confusion in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.
"There was also the challenge of sorting out witnesses from potential suspects. Texas is an open carry state, and there were a number of armed demonstrators taking part," Geron wrote. "There was confusion on the radio about the description of the suspects and whether or not one or more was in custody."
Rawlings, speaking at a news conference with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a stalwart supporter of open carry, said about 20 people in combat gear with rifles were on scene when the shooting started. They scattered as cops began getting shot, causing confusion about who the police needed to defend themselves from, Rawlings said. Saturday, Obama echoed Rawlings, saying that open carry policies led to confused police.
"If you care about the safety of police officers, then you can't set aside the gun issue and pretend that's irrelevant," the president said.
DontComply.com and Come and Take It Texas are two affiliated gun groups that regularly show up at protests and rallies where there is the potential for tension around the state. They were armed and in attendance at Donald Trump's June rally at Gilley's, and have shown up at several of Dallas' previous rallies against police brutality. Matthew Short, a spokesman for both groups, says that they avoided Thursday night's rally because something didn't feel right.
"None of us were comfortable about what we were hearing going into that protest," he said. "I don't know why our guts didn't feel right about it but this is one of the first major ones we haven't been to and something bad does happen. I don't know if we would've been able to stop anything."
Short says heated rhetoric stemming from the deaths at the hands of police officers of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in the Twin Cities created a dangerous situation.
"We've reached the point where we've got 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners and the public is getting upset about laws," he says. "We've tried to help make it better before. The times that we've been there we've been a buffer between the crowd and police and never had any problem."
He says that groups like the Huey P. Newton gun club, which regularly conducts armed patrols in South Dallas and had a presence at the rally Thursday night, aren't focused on gun rights. Instead, he says, they are more concerned with stoking anti-cop rhetoric. DontComply.com and Come and Take It Texas have reached out to Huey P. Newton but have been rebuffed, they claim, which contributed to the decision by the groups to skip Thursday's rally.
CJ Grisham, the president of Open Carry Texas says that open carry had absolutely nothing to do with anything that happened Thursday night, regardless of what Geron, Rawlings or anyone else says.
"This has nothing to do with open carry. This is nothing more than an anti-gun police chief and an anti-gun Dallas mayor who are trying to use a tragedy, an utter tragedy that had nothing to do with open carry to push their political agenda and keep guns out of the hands of the American people," he says. "I defy anyone with their dashcams and their audio and their body cams and all that to show one instance in which open carry hindered them from doing their job that day."
Hughes was targeted after the fact, Grisham says, just because he was open carrying. Like Short, he partly blames the rhetoric of those that are a part of and aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement for police distrust of black open carriers.
"I think that's one of the reasons that there is a negative reaction [from police] to black people carrying guns," he says. "The Huey P. Newton gun club does it in such an intimidating fashion. ... We just had a protest out in Lamar County yesterday, and we didn't talk about killing the sheriff."
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Thursday's demonstration was entirely peaceful until the shooting began. Protesters posed for pictures with police, who helped close streets for the march that took marchers from east to west and back again downtown.
Huey P. Newton gun club co-founder Babu Omawale told the Texas Tribune Saturday that attitudes like Grisham's are pervasive among law enforcement.
“This is how they treat black men with guns,” Omowale said. “I was actually at the protest. I saw the brother with his gun, and it didn’t alarm me in any type of way because to me, he’s another brother expressing his Second Amendment right. But the police automatically view him as a suspect. But that’s how they view us — as suspects. They view us as possible criminals when we’re only applying our given rights as gun owners."
Neither Short nor Grisham say that there is much the proverbial good guy with a gun could've done Thursday. Because Johnson concealed himself, they say, the best thing to do was get away.